Sunday, September 11, 2016

Book Review: "A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara

I read a fair amount, but I rarely write book reviews. But there is this “little” book of 800+ pages that I just finished, and let me tell you: it will probably stop you in your tracks in some ways. 


I've always believed that if a book wants to stand the test of time, it must be relatable, and universally so. Whether a man from 17th century China or a woman from 21st century Australia were to read it, they would both find something that speaks to their unique hearts in those pages. This is done by telling a universal story, as well as through masterful story telling. Yanagihara does both beautifully.

Another dimension that makes a book eternal, I think, is how real it is – and this book is very much that. Anything in any of its many pages can happen, and I am sure does happen, right now, as I type this, in many corners of the world, irregardless of boundaries and constraints of culture. One reason I prefer reading non-fiction is exactly this – the sheer reality of it keeps it visceral for me, and that's where my mind and heart live.

Reading this massive book reminded me about what Bill Clinton said about his autobiography: “Well, I don't know if it's a good book. But I know it's a heck of a story!”. “A Little Life” is a heck of a story. The book is just as little as the life of the main character, meaning not at all. In the depths where the writer takes us, the life is larger than any mind can comprehend. But in the scheme of New York, and life on this planet and in the universe, I suppose you can see it as a small speck. How much do we, or our our lives, or our suffering make a difference in the grand scheme of things, anyway?! Are we but a blip on the massive canvas of the world?!

There are few books which make you look inside your soul, in its most hidden, darkest corners and make you ask yourself: are you kind? Are you helpful? Could you do more? Could you help more? Do you judge? Are you cruel? Are you selfish? If you got another shot at your life, would you change anything or would you repeat the same story?! This books asks these questions and more.

If you're not ready for a deep dive into this kind of soul searching, then it's maybe better that you don't read it. I must say it took me about 200 pages to really get it, to really get what the writer was trying to present to us. But I never fully got the why behind it. I just enjoyed the ride, in the end, for the sake of the journey.

One thing my mind did refuse to understand and that was the amount of pain depicted in this book. Was it always really necessary to put our protagonist through so much pain and humiliation and desperation?! Was it really?! We did get the point at about page 400, I think, and yet it kept coming, more and more cruel, and hopeless and strange, well into the very last pages. I guess, it was all necessary to over-stress the amount and the intensity of evil that exists in the world. It was also necessary to counterbalance that evil with and to let shine even louder his unshaken grace and reverence. The effect achieved is beautifully poignant, I'd have to admit, but I did find myself skipping some pages and paragraphs where I found that too much was simply just too much.

I'd recommend this book for many reasons, some of them stated above, but I'd also recommend it for the sheer literary experience, if nothing else – kind of why you read “Ulysses”, you know. No, this book is not that cryptic. But the detail, the careful characterizations of all the 'round' characters, the minute attention to every trait is hardly found in today's writing. The patience! They are gems in today's world of tweets and snapchats.  

As a whole, in the end, the book is a worthy time commitment and an eye opener to say the very least. I thank my co-worker who recommended it so strongly that he bought my own copy himself, to make sure I'd read it. I hope some of you will seek it, as well. I am just passing on the baton and giving it my nod, for what it's worth.

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